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Home-cookin’: Rustic chicken and Pasta

September 8, 2006

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Does anyone else out there love Paul Prudhomme? That giant, jolly-looking chef famous for Cajun cookin’? The one who used to be so consumed with eating delicious food that he needed a wheelchair to get around? Yes, he’s lost weight. (And good for him.) But his former girth attests to a man who knows how to use butter — and isn’t afraid to consume it, either.

That’s my kind of guy.

And while I give credit to my parents for actually teaching me how to cook, my hat is off to Paul Prudhomme for making me love cooking. (A passion I have since ceded to my husband, as you can see from this blog. I’m still into eating though.)

The first raves for my mad cooking skills came courtesy of his book, Seasoned America. My parents are good cooks who used interesting flavors in their meals — much better than salt and pepper, I mean. But if you grew up never really having tasted heavily spiced, Cajun-type food… that type of cooking can be a revelation. It was for me, thanks to Seasoned America. That book was like crack. I tried many recipes — and more than ten years later, if my husband requests me to cook, he asks me to cook dishes I learned from Paul Prudhomme. (Specifically, his beef noodle casserole and Carolina Chicken Pilau.)

So naturally when my husband conceived of a dish inspired by Paul Prudhomme, I had to love it.

He’s calling it “Rustic chicken and pasta.” I’m calling it, “damn good.” What makes it Paul Prudhomme-like to me? Well, its deep rich flavors, earthy, homey spices and the long slow cooking time that lets them all get happy together. And the fact that it uses a roux — which Prudhomme used often in his book, without calling it that.

This dish is home cooking at its finest, which is what all those Seasoned America recipes were to me. Food that you want to chow on when it’s a cool, autumn evening; food that is served family-style around a hearth of sorts. It’s rich, it’s warm, it goes great with big hunks of bread you rip off the loaf and use to sop up the juices. Doesn’t that sound good? If so, read on:

Backgrounder…

Here in the U.S., fall is quickly approaching (and in some places it’s already here), which means our stomachs start to think of warm meals for cool days. This recipe speaks to me of exactly that sort of hearty eating. It was born out of a walk with the wife, when we were talking about a nice quiet evening at home eating something warm. It is not very complex once you understand how it works.

There are two big techniques in play: making a roux and braising. A roux is a traditional French technique used to thicken sauces. It’s at the heart of many sauces like béchamel — though I don’t think the French expected their Cajun cousins to go as crazy with it as they did.

A roux is made when a fat, usually butter, is cooked with flour. The fat and flour meld together to create a thickening mixture that brings flavor and texture to a liquid. If you cook the mixture only briefly, you get very little flavor. But a roux prepared for things such as gumbo and etouffee — backbones of any decent Creole or Cajun kitchen — can run a gauntlet of colors (and flavors) from blonde to caramel to coffee to chocolate to dark. Each stage provides a distinctive flavor that it’s hard to imagine comes from two of the most common ingredients in the kitchen.

In this dish, you are going to make a caramel-colored roux right before you add the stock. This should help give our product a velvety mouth feel as well as a nutty undertone. The technique is not complex; just follow the directions. It’s also a nice skill to know later.

The second technique we’ll use is braising. This is a fancy cooking term that can be translated into “slow cooking meat in a liquid.” The result is meat that becomes so tender it’s easy to pull apart. To me, it’s the quintessential cold weather cooking style. The oven is on, the pot is bubbling and the meat is just becoming perfect. This is also a great way to cook tough cuts of meat, which tend to be on the cheaper side of the spectrum.

Here, you are going to braise the chicken quarters and allow them to cook slowly in the sauce you made with the roux. By the time you remove them, they’ll have given the liquid a good deal of their own flavor. You’ll pull the meat from the bones and add the meat back to the dish. The result is a silky, hearty sauce with noodles.

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Rustic Chicken and Pasta

Ingredients:

2 chicken leg quarters with skin-on and bone

1 quart chicken broth (low sodium)

1/2 large onion, rough chopped
3 carrots, rough chopped
4 celery ribs, rough chopped
1 bell pepper, rough chopped
3 cloves garlic, diced fine

2 slices thick cut bacon (or 3 regular)

1 tsp. dry mustard

1/4 tsp. white pepper

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/3 cup flour

2 sprigs fresh marjoram

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

Salt

Black pepper

Directions:

1. Slice the bacon into small pieces. Chop and prepare the vegetables. Liberally salt and grind fresh black pepper on both sides of the leg quarters.

2. In a large pot over medium high heat, fry the bacon. Once the bacon has given up some of its fat, approximately 1 minute, add the chicken, skin-side down, to the pot. You’re browning the meat, not cooking it. Once the skin has some color, approximately 4 minutes, turn the chicken over and brown the underside. Once the meat is brown, remove the chicken and the bacon; place on a paper towel to drain.

2. Reduce the heat to medium and add the carrots, celery, bell pepper, and onion to the pot. Salt the vegetables and begin to brown them. After about 3 minutes, add the garlic. After 2 minutes, add the dry mustard, onion powder, garlic powder, and white pepper and let cook for another 3 minutes. You are looking for the onions to be translucent and the carrots to be soft.

3. Now it’s time to make the roux. This is a bastardized roux. Some will only let you cook roux at certain times with just fat and flour. But, we are not caught up in the debate — we are intrepid cooks. Therefore, we add the flour to the veggie-spice-fat mixture and stir. We want to incorporate them together. You’ll start to see it form a thick, heavy paste.
4. When the paste starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, it’s time to add a cup of the broth. By doing this, we are trying to deglaze the pan. There are many brown bits on the bottom that are full of flavor. So, pour in the broth and scrape the bottom as we go. Over medium heat, we are going to let this cook for about 10-12 minutes. You should be looking for the color of the roux to be nearly the shade of peanut butter or caramel. (Note for you Cajun/French cooks: we are looking for a medium).

Once the roux has become this proper shade, go ahead and add the borth one cup at time and scrape the bottom to ensure you are getting all the bits again from the bottom. Once again, we are ‘deglazing’ and you can brag to your friends about it. By the time you’ve added the second cup, the sides and bottoms should be relatively clear of bits, and you can pour in the remainder of the broth.

5. Turn up the heat to high and bring the broth to a boil. Once you have a boil, add back in the leg quarters and bacon, and add the bay leaf, fresh marjoram and thyme. Cover the pot. Turn down the heart to low and let cook for about 45 min.

Note: If there isn’t enough liquid in the pot to fully submerge the thighs, come back and flip them over when you are about halfway through the cooking process.

6. If you want to make your own pasta, this is the perfect time to go ahead and make it. We have a good recipe over at our fresh pasta entry. We served reginette, a ribbon pasta, with this dish. We also recommend fettuccini or similar flat noodle. If you don’t make your own, about 25 minutes after you start cooking, you might want to put water on to boil and prepare your dried pasta.

7. After 45 minutes, you now should remove the leg quarters to a cutting board. You know you’re close to being ready to serve when you can easily pull the meat from the bone. If you are at that stage, using two forks, shred the chicken off the bone. If you’re not, return the quarters to the broth and continue to cook for 10-minute increments. Once the chicken is ready, set aside any bone, gristle, or anything else you don’t want to eat. Add the good chicken bits back to the broth. Taste the broth; you may need to add salt or pepper, depending on how much you added when you cooked the vegetables and seasoned the leg quarters.

8. If you have cooked the pasta, now is the time to add it. Once the pasta is ready and strained, add to the broth and mix into completely.When you serve, you can remove the bay leaf and used sprigs. They make for delicious flavors, but lousy for actually eating.

After that, Serve and Enjoy!

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